Mental health issues among children have been steadily increasing for several years.
With existing mental health issues in place, the effects of COVID-19 worsened mental health for children in the U.S. and globally.
COVID-19 introduced new problems with school performance, connections with peers, access to mental health care, and negative impacts on the emotional well-being of students.
In this guide, you’ll find information on:
- trends in mental health among children
- how COVID-19 impacted mental health
- factors that affect mental illness
- the warning signs of mental illness in children
- how to help a child with a mental health disorder
Mental Health Disorder Trends For Children
According to research from the Journal of Pediatrics, the most common mental disorders in children are:
- ADHD: 9.4% of children, or about 6.1 million
- behavior problems: 7.4% of children, or 4.5 million
- anxiety: 7.1% of children, about 4.4 million
- depression: 3.2% of children, or 1.9 million
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that depression and anxiety diagnoses increased from 5.4% in 2003 to 8% in 2007, and to 8.4% in 2011 to 2012.
What’s more, the stress and uncertainty introduced by the pandemic exacerbated these issues. Children who have existing mental health concerns are at a much greater risk of mental disorders.
According to findings from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF):
- over 25% of high school students experienced a decline in their mental and cognitive health
- 20% of parents of children aged five to 12 said their children experienced worsened mental health
of LGBTQ youth surveyed, 73% reported anxiety symptoms, 67% experienced depression, and 48% had thoughts of suicide
A study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) found that the pandemic had a strong impact on high school students’ psychological symptoms.
For high schoolers, the biggest issues were found to be:
- negative self-concept
COVID-19’s Impact On Children’s Mental Health Issues
COVID-19 may have led to a decline in mental health among children (and their parents) for several reasons, such as common themes of isolation, anxiety, and depression.
Difficulty Adjusting To New School Patterns
The NCBI study found that the most prominent issues among students are in relation to their educational success and preparedness.
According to the study, students struggled with:
- preparation and participation in online lessons
- time management
- efficient studying
- following along in classes
- loss of academic achievement
- technological issues
- weakened school connection
And now that many are headed back to school for in-person education, questions of health and safety, adjusting back to normal school, and much more have complicated the issue for students.
Decreased Access To Counseling In Schools During Lockdowns
KFF researchers noted that while access to telehealth increased during the pandemic, students lost access to school counselors, a primary source of mental health guidance.
Many students relied on the services of school counselors — family counseling, student meetings, home visits — but this in-person service was no longer available with quarantines.
Emotional Effects Of Quarantine
Children were subject to more isolation and loneliness than ever before during lockdowns.
NBCI research uncovered the following common issues for students:
- anxiety over getting COVID
- fear of death, or fear of losing a loved one
- fear of uncertainty
- pressures associated with quarantine
- loss of freedom
In addition to emotional and mental effects, many students had trouble sleeping, managing their appetite (under or overeating), and struggled with the loss of outlets like sports and clubs.
Decreased Mental Health Of Parents
These themes are not restricted to children and students. Many parents and caretaker relatives also experienced the same fears, depression, and emotional shifts.
When a parent is not mentally well, the child often suffers.
One NCBI study discovered that there’s a significant correlation between parental mental health and behavioral disorders for preschool children.
In another study of the effects of parental mental illness on children, socioeconomic disadvantage and marital conflict were found to have negative effects on children.
Children of parents with mental illness:
- struggle with forming attachments
- are at a disadvantage in terms of cognitive, emotional, social, and behavioral development
- are more likely to develop a psychiatric disorder
In the case of parental mental illness, parents are urged to take preventative measures and prioritize their own mental well-being for the health of their children.
Impacts On Relationships
Students of all ages saw a sharp decline in interpersonal interaction. Family members, friends, classmates, and teammates were cut off, and these relationships suffered.
On top of this, many children experienced an increase in tension or decline in relationships among family members within their household, such as their parents and siblings.
For some, the pandemic brought their family together. But for others, it created chasms and placed a magnifying glass on issues and tensions in the home.
Other Factors That Affect Mental Illness In Children
Factors such as financial stress, divorce, family tension, and other issues can greatly negatively impact a child’s mental health.
The CDC found that in children living below 100% of the federal poverty level (FPL), 1 in 5 (22%) had a mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.
Not only do these financial stressors increase a child’s likelihood to develop a mental disorder, but they also negatively impact a child’s access to proper treatment and help.
Warning Signs Your Child Is Dealing With A Mental Illness
If you’re concerned your child is dealing with mental health issues, there are several physical, behavioral, and emotional signs to be aware of.
Remember, you know your child better than anyone else. If minor changes in behavior or emotions are normal for your child, take the signs below with consideration of their typical behaviors.
Most children have mood swings and small personality changes, as they’re still growing and developing. Significant, noticeable changes are what you should be on the lookout for.
Physical Signs Of Mental Illness
You may observe physical signs of mental illness in your child. This can include factors such as their physical appearance, hygiene, and sleep patterns.
Here are some of the common physical signs of mental illness in children:
- marks on the skin from self-harming (this may include cutting, scratching, picking at wounds, or burning of the skin)
- hair loss (this may be from stress or pulling hair)
- a decline in hygiene (such as less frequent bathing, brushing hair, and brushing teeth)
- changes in appetite
- changes in sleep
- weight loss or gain
- nausea or stomach pains
Behavioral Signs Of Mental Illness
If your child is dealing with a mental illness, they’ll also likely exhibit behavioral changes.
- skipping school
- changes in academic performance
- withdrawing from friends and family
- loss of interest in fun activities
- inability to connect or relate with others
- mood swings, including extreme highs and lows
- rage, anger, or irritability
- trouble concentrating
- frequent nightmares or night terrors
Emotional And Mental Signs Of Mental Illness
Be aware of the emotional and mental signs of mental illness. These may not be as noticeable if your child is hiding their thoughts and feelings.
Because of this, it’s important to keep the lines of communication open so they might share with you what they’re experiencing.
Here are some of the emotional and mental effects you may notice:
- sadness that exceeds two weeks
- worry or anxiety
- panic attacks
- suicidal thoughts or attempts
- inability to express emotions
- difficulty managing stress or sadness
- difficulty handling everyday activities and problems
How To Help A Child With Mental Health Issues
Here, we’ll discuss ways you can help your child. These suggestions include tips on acquiring resources for yourself and your child.
Reach Out For Help
The first step in helping your child is to find as many resources as you can. You might speak with your child’s doctor to determine whether the changes in your child warrant a diagnosis.
You may also consider talking with family members, friends, teachers, and others who know your child to get their perspective on observable changes in emotions and behavior.
There are also parent training programs and support groups for parents of children with mental illness so you can be better prepared for and aware of the signs of mental illness.
Help Your Child Find Ways To Have Fun
There’s much value in giving our children ways to cope and release tension or stress. Having fun, doing something they enjoy, and laughing can all boost mental health.
Especially if your child is older and has more school work and commitments, make sure to build time into their day that’s devoted to doing something fun and relaxing.
Encourage them to stay busy with something they enjoy doing, such as spending time with friends, playing video games, or going outside.
Teach Your Child Stress-Management Techniques
Our kids often face mental health issues because they don’t have the tools to manage their stress or emotions.
Here are some stress-management techniques you might teach your child:
- encourage a healthy diet and proper sleep: A child needs sleep and good nutrition to function well and be prepared for life events.
- help them to find a safe space to talk: Whether it’s you, a mentor, or a school counselor, help your child to find a healthy outlet to discuss what they’re going through.
- journaling: When your child is experiencing negative emotions or stress, encourage them to write about it in a journal to process their thoughts.
- breathing exercises: Look into some breathing exercises and practice them together. This can help to settle your child emotionally and physically.
- connect with music: Listening to music has been found to release stress. Create a playlist with your child of their favorite artists and songs.
Find Peer Support Programs
Your child needs to know that they’re not alone. We can encourage our children as their parents, but they often need to hear from peers who know what it’s like to have mental issues.
Find a peer support program in your area and invite your child to go. Offer this as an outlet to vent, connect with others who understand their feelings, and make friends with people who care.
Take Them To A Therapist
If you and your child are comfortable with it, a therapist might be a good option. Some issues are beyond our expertise as parents, and a licensed professional can bridge that gap.
Benefits of counseling include:
- offering a safe space to talk
- the opportunity to work through deeper issues that may be at the root of the mental illness
- finding new coping strategies and tools for mental health success
Additional Resources For Helping A Child With Mental Health Issues
Below are a few resources to assist you and your child:
- The CDC, COVID-19 Parental Resources Kit: This page lists resources for kids by age to improve the social, emotional, and mental well-being of children.
- The CDC, Children’s Mental Health: Learn about children’s mental health, child development, related conditions, and more.
- Mental Health America, screening tool: This is a free tool anyone can use to find out whether they’re experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness, support groups: NAMI offers peer-led support groups for individuals and families.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness, managing depression: NAMI provides guidance on helping a child to manage depression symptoms.
- American Psychological Association — How to help children and teens manage their stress
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — COVID-19 Parental Resources Kit
- The Journal of Pediatrics — Prevalence and Treatment of Depression, Anxiety, and Conduct Problems in US Children
- Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) — Mental Health and Substance Use Considerations Among Children During the COVID-19 Pandemic
- Mayo Clinic — Mental illness in children: Know the signs
- Mental Health America — Take a Mental Health Test
- National Alliance on Mental Illness — Support Groups
- National Alliance on Mental Illness — Warning Signs and Symptoms
- National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) — The association between parental mental health and behavioral disorders in pre-school children
- ScienceDirect — Effects of parental mental illness on children
- University of Nevada, Reno — Releasing stress through the power of music